A new technique could provide a long jump forward in spotting athletes' use of banned substances, according to research published today in the journal Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry.
The technique will enable sporting drugs officials to distinguish between the presence of naturally occurring human steroids and those that have been synthetically manufactured.
Although synthetic and naturally occurring steroids are similar, they differ in the ratio of 'heavy' carbon to 'light' carbon they contain. However, measuring this carbon ratio has previously been extremely difficult because the molecules react too aggressively with laboratory instruments to allow accurate analysis.
The new approach, developed by scientists from Imperial College London and the University of Nottingham, allows easy analysis of the carbon ratio. It uses a catalytic reaction to strip steroids of their more aggressive parts whilst leaving the carbon 'skeleton' intact. This technique, called hydropyrolysis, is commonly used to aid oil exploration by freeing small fragments of organic matter from petroleum rock sources.
Dr Mark Sephton, from Imperial's Department of Earth Science and Engineering and lead author of the research, explained: "The type of carbon in the body's molecules reflects the carbon ingested as part of an athlete's diet, and if you can work out the carbon ratio in the molecules you can determine the source of the carbon.
"Drug cheats should beware. The carbon-based secrets of steroids are now apparent to the analyst. Thanks to our technique, in the future it will be much more difficult to escape detection when using performance-enhancing steroids", he added.
The researchers have so far been working on pure samples of steroid molecules and their next step is to extend the work onto samples taken from the body. The process will be ready for use in the sporting environment once this work has been completed.